The Alaska Digital Academy, Ketchikan’s distance learning platform, is based at Ketchikan High School, seen here in a 2013 file photo. (KRBD)


When state officials announced that they’d contracted with Florida’s virtual school program for statewide digital classes, some educators in Ketchikan were left scratching their heads.

Though the coronavirus has lent it some new urgency, state and local officials have been looking into — and implementing — distance learning for years. Back in 2014, Ketchikan and three other school districts across Alaska were awarded nearly $3.2 million in grants.

“It was called the Digital Teaching Initiative,” said Ketchikan school technology coordinator Bill Whicker in a phone interview last Thursday. “Really, the goal of it was to get high quality courses and Alaskan teachers in front of more kids in a digital fashion,” he said.

Whicker used $800,000 in grant money to build the Alaska Digital Academy, which he now leads. He’s careful not to call it a virtual school. Instead, it’s a “course portal” — students’ home districts assign credits and determine graduation requirements.

More than 200 kids from Ketchikan to Kake to Bethel are enrolled. Classes are graded by an Alaska-licensed teacher who’s often just a phone call or email away.

“That’s one of our strengths, really, because the teachers that are helping our students in the Digital Academy, they understand the challenges that we have in our state — with geography, with travel, with all those kinds of things,” Whicker said.

Most of the Alaska Digital Academy’s enrollment comes from Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District)

The program was developed in Ketchikan. But he said they had the whole state in mind.

“We built the Digital Academy to be scalable — so that we could scale it up and serve thousands of students,” he said. “It’s the real deal.”

That’s why Whicker and other education officials in Alaska were surprised when the Dunleavy administration announced a one-year, $525,000 contract with an out-of-state choice offering similar services.

“I was a bit surprised […] the state went with Florida, because we had done a lot of footwork,” he said.

State Education Commissioner Michael Johnson outlined a few reasons to go with the Florida Virtual School for state lawmakers last week.

“It’s been around for almost 20 years, providing courseware training and expertise and online blended programs for districts, states,” he told a joint hearing of the House and Senate education committees.

He didn’t mention the school’s well-publicized management scandal that led to a slew of resignations by top leadership last year, and calls for a state government investigation.

But he did speak of the Florida school’s robust course catalog — it has more than twice as many courses to choose from as Ketchikan’s course portal. And it’s free to students and districts — the Alaska Digital Academy charges districts $250 per student, per course.

A spokesperson for Alaska’s education department says 140 students are currently taking 420 courses via the Florida Virtual School. Through Ketchikan’s Digital Academy, she says it would have cost $105,000 for just those students already enrolled. The $525,000 contract with Florida’s school is a flat fee, she said.

One former Ketchikan official also recommended the Florida Virtual School. Bob Boyle — who was Ketchikan’s school superintendent at the time it was developing its digital academy — was paid $15,000 to advise the Dunleavy administration on distance learning options. He recommended Florida’s setup over Ketchikan’s.

In a report to the education department, Boyle said of Ketchikan’s digital academy, “it does not have the depth of program knowledge or resources” as the Florida Virtual School. Boyle did not respond to several interview requests.

Johnson also told state lawmakers he didn’t want to overwhelm Ketchikan’s district staff grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson gives an overview of education in Alaska to the Senate Education Committee in Juneau in 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

“Virtual school is not new to the state. We have some virtual schools now,” the education commissioner said, “Those teachers are busy dealing with the transition that’s happened.”

But Johnson apologized to Alaska’s public school administrators for not consulting them in the selection process, saying “there was no deliberate intent not to collaborate or not to communicate with superintendents, or school boards, or anybody else.”

And he told lawmakers the state intends to train at least 50 Alaska teachers to use the Florida Virtual School platform. They would start teaching this fall.

Johnson says the Florida Virtual School contract isn’t meant to supplant local efforts. Rather, it was intended to supplement existing classes.

“In no way is this to take a kid a student away from their local school — so they wouldn’t unenroll and enroll in these courses,” he told the committee.

Back in Ketchikan, Alaska Digital Academy’s Bill Whicker says about two dozen students have joined the program since the pandemic closed schools. And he says the academy could have accommodated many more if it was chosen over the Florida Virtual School.

“We could have scaled it up, yep, we could have,” he said. “Still can!”

For now, though, Whicker is focused on maintaining the program and expanding it wherever he can.